Splendid "Cosi fan tutte" kicks off mini Mozart celebration

Back in 1991, the classical music world threw itself into a virtual frenzy to honor the 200th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's death. In New York, Lincoln Center committed to performing each of his 835 compositions, and the Metropolitan Opera staged all his mature operas over a couple of seasons.

Flash forward, and 2006 will mark the 250th anniversary of the musical prodigy's birth. This time the Met is taking a more modest approach, presenting three of his masterpieces in the current season.

The first, "Cosi fan tutte," opened its run Friday night with results that were indeed worth celebrating. The company has put together a cast of six terrific performers who take advantage of their individual moments to shine while never losing the delicate ensemble balance the work requires.

The cynical libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte tells of two young officers who make a bet that their sister sweethearts will resist temptation and remain faithful to them. To test them, they pretend to be drafted off to war but reappear in disguise and take turns wooing each other's fiancee _ both, to their dismay, successfully. True identities are revealed at the finale, and all is more or less forgiven, though it's open to the director's interpretation how the pairing of the four lovers sorts itself out.

As befits an opera whose subject is the fickleness of women, the female singers held the greatest claim on the attention of the enthusiastic audience. Soprano Barbara Frittoli as Fiordiligi and mezzo Magdalena Kozena as her younger sister, Dorabella, made a nice contrast vocally and histrionically. Kozena has a warm, vibrato-charged voice and a mischievous look that contribute to her easy charm; Frittoli, playing the more determined holdout, acts with grace and elegance and sings Fiordiligi's two showpiece arias with remarkable skill.

As their meddling maid, Despina, soprano Nuccia Focile was not the usual light-voiced soubrette but a potent soprano with good comic timing.

The persuasive suitors were tenor Matthew Polenzani, a young Met favorite whose voice seems to be maintaining its bloom as he progresses to more demanding roles, and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. Veteran Thomas Allen rounded out the cast as Don Alfonso, mastermind of the wager. His voice is becoming perilously dry, but he brings such authority to the portrayal that it matters little.

Music director James Levine conducted the orchestra at occasional breakneck speed in some of the ensembles, but his expert cast was astonishingly good at keeping pace.

The current production was introduced in 1996, when Cecilia Bartoli made her Met debut as Despina. Michael Yeargan's sets continue to impress, especially for the ease and speed with which one scene shifts to the next, from seashore to house to garden and back again.

Next up in the Mozart tribute is "Le Nozze di Figaro," opening Nov. 2, with "Die Zauberfloete," in the Julie Taymor production, returning Jan. 21, AP reported. V.A.

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